CHICAGO, January 24, 189-.
Dear Pierrepont: I had to send your last letter to the fertilizer department to find out what it was all about. We’ve got a clerk there who’s an Oxford graduate, and who speaks seven languages for fifteen dollars a week, or at the rate of something more than two dollars a language. Of course, if you’re such a big thinker that your ideas rise to the surface too fast for one language to hold ’em all, it’s a mighty nice thing to know seven; but it’s been my experience that seven spread out most men so thin that they haven’t anything special to say in any of them. These fellows forget that while life’s a journey, it isn’t a palace-car trip for most of us, and that if they hit the trail packing a lot of weight for which they haven’t any special use, they’re not going to get very far. You learn men and what men should do, and how they should do it, and then if you happen to have any foreigners working for you, you can hire a fellow at fifteen per to translate hustle to ’em into their own fool language. It’s always been my opinion that everybody spoke American while the tower of Babel was building, and that the Lord let the good people keep right on speaking it. So when you’ve got anything to say to me, I want you to say it in language that will grade regular on the Chicago Board of Trade.
Some men fail from knowing too little, but more fail from knowing too much, and still more from knowing it all. It’s a mighty good thing to understand French if you can use it to some real purpose, but when all the good it does a fellow is to help him understand the foreign cuss-words in a novel, or to read a story which is so tough that it would make the Queen’s English or any other ladylike language blush, he’d better learn hog-Latin! He can be just the same breed of yellow dog in it, and it don’t take so much time to pick it up.
Never ask a man what he knows, but what he can do. A fellow may know everything that’s happened since the Lord started the ball to rolling, and not be able to do anything to help keep it from stopping. But when a man can do anything, he’s bound to know something worth while. Books are all right, but dead men’s brains are no good unless you mix a live one’s with them.
It isn’t what a man’s got in the bank, but what he’s got in his head, that makes him a great merchant. Rob a miser’s safe and he’s broke; but you can’t break a big merchant with a jimmy and a stick of dynamite. The first would have to start again just where he began—hoarding up pennies; the second would have his principal assets intact. But accumulating knowledge or piling up money, just to have a little more of either than the next fellow, is a fool game that no broad-gauged man has time enough to sit in. Too much learning, like too much money, makes most men narrow.